The Friday Five: 5 Worst AI Problems in Basketball Video Games

The Friday Five

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA, or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.

We’ve tipped off our Wishlists for both basketball games, and as I do every year, I’ve been making sure to put out a few reminders about the best way to provide feedback. The most common mistake when posting suggestions for NBA Live or NBA 2K is failing to provide relevant details: saying things like “deeper modes”, “better gameplay”, or “improved AI”. While these are certainly things that we do want to see, they don’t describe what we specifically want to see improve, or the problems that need to be addressed. It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering “tasty food”; there isn’t nearly enough information to work from.

Basketball has a lot finicky nuances that we want to see realistically portrayed in NBA Live and NBA 2K, and when our expectations aren’t being met, we need to be able to identify all those annoying quirks in the AI. Those moments of frustration we have when we’re playing a game, because the CPU is doing something that’s not quite right? Those are the issues that we need to bring up. To demonstrate what I’m talking about, here are five of what I feel are the worst problems with AI in basketball video games, along with some relevant examples.

1. Point Guard Domination

Jose Calderon in NBA Live 10

Or domination by any position for that matter, but the problem tends to affect point guards more often than not, since they frequently have control of the basketball. While there are point guards who do put up big numbers in terms of scoring and assists, they certainly aren’t all threats to rack up 30 points and 15 assists on any given night. In games where this is an issue, point guards also tend to over-dribble, and get to the basket a little too easily. Again, for some players that may be accurate, but it also results in the real go to players on the team putting up paltry numbers because they rarely get to touch the basketball.

Fortunately, this has become less and less of an issue in recent games, though players who are capable scorers from the point guard position will take advantage of defensive errors…as they should. Looking back, I’d say the severity of the issue probably peaked with NBA Live 10. Chris Duhon tends to be my go to example here, as I recall a few games in which he – despite my best efforts – lit me up for around 40 points, while also dishing out double digit assists. Needless to say, it shouldn’t have been as regular an occurrence as it was, so I’m very glad to see significant improvement in this area.

2. Lack of Balance & Seemingly Canned Moments

Chris Paul steals the basketball in NBA Live 16

“Scripted” is a criticism that does get thrown around a little too easily these days. Whenever something undesirable happens during gameplay, it’s all too easy to write it off as a flaw in the game. Of course, there are legitimate issues with moments that seem a little too “scripted” or “canned”. One example I’ll throw out there is stealing in NBA Live 16. On some steal attempts, it’s clear that the AI isn’t about to let you poke the basketball loose, and your opponent automatically performs an elusive dribbling move, or bump. It’s quite an obvious tell that you were never going to get the steal because the AI didn’t want you to, downplaying skill in favour of random chance.

Needless to say, achieving realism in basketball video games is easier said than done. There are limitations as to what can be done with the AI, and it’s important that it has a means of matching up with, and challenging, a human player. This means that the CPU might have a slight advantage in certain areas, but this has unfortunate side effects, such as CPU opponents being notably quicker, more adept at hitting contested shots, and hitting open shots at an unrealistic clip. Sliders can sometimes help here, but it’s not uncommon for the AI to seemingly override those settings. Furthermore, it’s not an option in game modes where you can’t customise the gameplay sliders, such as the single player career and card-based team building modes.

3. Teammates Lacking Hustle & Heart

LeBron James dives for the basketball in NBA 2K16

This is something that I’ve noticed in my many years of playing basketball video games. When it comes to chasing down rebounds, scooping up loose balls, and so on, your CPU-controlled teammates don’t seem to have the same intensity (or intelligence) as the CPU-controlled opponents. In fact, this issue even seems to extend to the player that you’re controlling, since reaching for loose balls is an automatic action when you’re in position, and you’re relying on the player to move in the right direction and reach for rebounds after you make the appropriate input. CPU opponents seem to give much more effort and energy in these situations.

It’s incredibly frustrating when one of your teammates just stands and looks at the basketball, instead of snatching it up. It’s even worse when you move your player over to a loose ball and they make a half-hearted attempt at grabbing it, allowing an opponent to swoop in and gain possession. Chances are, the efforts to retrieve the loose ball or rebound – which you should’ve had a chance to get, but for reasons beyond your control, did not – will also put you out of position defensively. That in itself isn’t unrealistic, but the AI does seem to grant itself an unfair advantage in setting up those scenarios. And for the AI’s next trick, you’ll experience…

4. Teammates Forgetting How to Play Basketball

Derrick Rose & Jimmy Butler in NBA 2K16

As noted above, it’s bad enough when your teammates (or the player you’re controlling) don’t seem to react as quickly as they should. It’s even worse when they seem to forget how to play basketball altogether. You know how it goes: any momentum you had suddenly stops dead in its tracks as you’re ice cold from the field, and the offense stagnates, with a few too many passes going awry. That does happen to teams in real life, but when it happens in basketball video games, it’s very abrupt, and occurs because the AI has decided that it’s time for you to struggle, rather than genuine poor play or mistakes on your part.

Speaking of mistakes, when it comes to your CPU teammates making errors and forgetting how to play basketball, the phenomenon is even more common at the defensive end. There should be defensive lapses during the game, but it’s cheap when your CPU teammates constantly fail to rotate on defense, or fill the paint when an opponent is driving to the rim. It’s especially disheartening when you see them actively scoot out of the way to let a player through to the hoop. Players in basketball video games have much smarter AI than they used to, and their behaviour is generally more realistic these days as well. However, there are still a few too many instances of artificial stupidity, at conveniently inopportune moments.

5. Brutal Comeback Logic

Kobe Bryant with the reverse layup in NBA Live 06

This is perhaps the most frustrating issue with AI in basketball video games, as it encompasses the four other problems that I’ve outlined above. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the situation, especially if you played NBA Live 06 back in the day. When the chips are down, and the CPU needs to dig deep for the victory, it pulls out all the stops to unleash those four AI quirks upon us, along with any other tricks it has up its sleeve. A 20 point lead seemingly vanishes in an instant, as the CPU plays flawlessly in its heroic comeback. You, on the other hand, are suddenly missing easy shots around the rim, coughing up the ball every second possession, and are powerless to quell the onslaught. Weird…

Granted, this particular AI quirk isn’t completely unrealistic, and that does sting a bit. Teams do make late runs, and miraculous comebacks do happen. As I’ve discussed before, if we want basketball video games to be realistic, we need to accept undesirable and improbable results from time to time. Once again, it’s also crucial that the AI has some advantage that allows it to compete with a human user. However, it becomes a problem and detracts from the game when it feels too artificial; in particular, when the CPU can launch comebacks time after time, even with mediocre teams who are prone to choking in the clutch. When the comeback logic is too vicious, something about the AI isn’t quite right, and needs to be toned down a little.

What are some other AI-related problems that cause you the most frustration when you’re playing basketball video games? Sound off in the comments below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum. That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.

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February 20, 2016 6:04 pm

Fine article as always, Andrew!

I remind the times when I have been playing in Live 06, especially in 07 and 08: there were stupid PG starters domination, even these players have 70+ only rating.

There were very unjoyable issues with the realistic subs logic. Live 05 was a standard with a big sleeve of variations: big 5, speed 5, players could switching between positions, close 2/3 of them, AI could subs PF for C, PF for SF, PG for SG by itself for example. In Live 06 it was some worse, in Live 07 became even worse, but in Live 08 there was ridiculous, because AI have been switching (I start to forget clearly… ;)) neither PF and C only, or PG–SF only. Even with official patches on PC.

What about stealing issues, I can some agree. I last Lives these were less complicated than today. For example, when I am playing in LUT in Live 16 there are 1-2-3 mine steals per game, AI has similar numbers too. But there is some moment with 7 (!) steals per player for example (I have made it there with Tay Lawson). It’s fair. πŸ™‚

There need to mention the true ‘chasing’ down slider in Live 08 thought. πŸ˜‰

Other issues are desirable to fix, but are Ok. πŸ˜‰